Poetry, according to Octavio Paz, is the language of the silences between conversations and events. It attempts to convey the unspoken in spoken form.
Out of all of the literary forms, poetry is perhaps the most elitist, at least from an academic standpoint. With fiction, you have “literary” fiction and “mass market” fiction. Who ever heard of “mass market” poetry? Perhaps books of rhymes are considered such. But they really fall into their own category, and are not considered in the same genre as poetry, even though they have a rhyming scheme and a structure. Poems don’t have to rhyme, though they do have to have structure. Even blank verse has a structure.
I’ve thought about the poems that have impacted me. In order to “resonate” with a poem, the words have to evoke something. If you aren’t taken to the emotional space of the poem, then it’s not effective. Here are five poems that had an impact on me as an undergraduate:
The Moon and the Yew Tree (Sylvia Plath)
The Moose (Elizabeth Bishop)
Skunk Hour (Robert Lowell)
In Memoriam, verse 96 (Alfred Lord Tennyson)
Because I Could Not Stop for Death (Emily Dickinson)
I looked over the list, and realized that all of these poems do the same thing—they represent a breaking point. You can watch the poet change while reading through or listening to the poem.
Let’s look at them one by one:
Sylvia Plath—The Moon and the Yew Tree
What follows is my favorite rendering of this poem, by Plath herself. The only problem is that it starts in the last 25 seconds of the first YouTube video, and finishes at the beginning of the second. You can fast forward to the end of the first one—it’s worth experiencing the whole thing:
(at about 9:35, then continued at)
Text of the poem here
A. Alvarez discusses the break in this documentary, if you care to listen to his commentary a little before the start of the poem. What happens is that the old Sylvia Plath, careful about forms, counting syllables, very elegant in her words—suddenly changes to the Sylvia Plath you seen in the rest of the Ariel poems—a woman breaking away from what she’s supposed to be, and becoming what she actually is. The breaking line is, “I simply cannot see where there is to get to.”
Elizabeth Bishop—The Moose
The Moose from Voices and Visions (embedding disabled)
(at about 4:11, interrupted with some commentary)
Text of the poem here
Again, I like the fact that Bishop is reading this, I just hate how broken up the poem is with commentary. The breaking point here is when the driver stops because there is a large moose in the middle of the road. However, the moose is a welcome epiphany—its presence is almost spiritual. It takes us away from the day to day life of sorrows and puts us in touch with nature.
Robert Lowell—Skunk Hour
Interestingly, Lowell wrote this for Elizabeth Bishop. You have this description of a town, of life, of driving out at the hour when skunks are digging through garbage cans. As Lowell is describing the scene, he suddenly shifts: “My mind’s not right.” And then the tone of the poem changes entirely. He is on a hill where lover’s meet, and is alone. “I myself am hell—there’s no one here.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson—In Memoriam, A.H.H., 96
No video link--poem only here
This may seem like an odd choice. Tennyson doesn’t look like the others. But this section of In Memoriam represents a breaking point in Tennyson’s entire body of work. Much of what Tennyson had written up to this point was dramatic monologue. He used it as often as Browning, and as I’ve mentioned in other places, dramatic monologue is something of a literary cop-out. Dramatic monologues are narrated by characters that hide the poet’s true feelings and intentions. I had written a paper a long time ago about this curious break. In Memoriam was written for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, whose death seemed to affect Tennyson greatly. If you know the stages of grief, and apply that to Tennyson’s poetry, then In Memoriam is a movement from bargaining (dramatic monologue) to depression. However, verse 96 represents a move from depression to acceptance:
“He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own”
So, verse 96 represents the end of mourning, and movement forward. Lastly, we have:
Emily Dickinson—Because I Could Not Stop for Death
This is an old poem with a traditional rhyming scheme. It bounces along as the carriage in the poem bounces along. The rhythm remains consistent until she says “We passed the setting sun—or rather, he passed us”. Suddenly there is an awareness of what it means to share a carriage with Death and Immortality. It is an interruption, a waking up, coming out of denial.
I have to wonder why these poems are the ones with the greatest effect on me. Perhaps it is because those shifts and breaking points are so important in real life. They represent different aspects of change, and they are where we find ourselves.